Convervationists keep a watch on baby birds' health

by: COURTESY PHOTO: TUALATIN SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION DISTRICT - Several local bird species begin their nesting season as early as February, and local conservation groups take care to limit their spraying and mowing of woody shrubs beginning in mid-April through July 15 to protect the later-nesting songbirds. As April showers gave rise to May flowers, many agricultural producers, nursery owners and homeowners are putting an end to procrastinating that least fun of all maintenance projects: weed removal.

Yet local conservationists recommend proceeding with caution right now when it comes to removing blackberry, ivy, scotch broom and other weeds that form dense thickets. Mowing and spraying during these months could put baby birds at risk, an outcome that nursery owners and other landowners implementing conservation projects try to avoid.

Several local bird species begin their nesting season as early as February, and local conservation groups like the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District (TSWCD) take care to limit their spraying and mowing of woody shrubs beginning in mid-April through July 15 to protect the later-nesting songbirds.

Especially when trying to restore public or private lands, it can be a real challenge for landowners to hold back. “Some species that may use our streamside buffers nest earlier, especially waterfowl and hummingbirds, while others like the willow flycatcher nest later in the year,” said Nicole Ahr of TSWCD. “We run short of days when we can treat weeds and when contractors are still available to do the work.

“Our projects are designed to improve wildlife habitat, though, so timing our work carefully to avoid disturbing these nests is important.”

Landowners working with TSWCD, including local nurseries, agree to abide by the same rules in order to protect these sensitive nests. Many nursery owners, like Tom Epler of EF Nursery in Forest Grove are showing an interest in conservation work.

Prior to the project, Epler was unaware of the sensitive bird nesting season here in Oregon, but he was more than willing to give the birds a hand by carefully scheduling activities in his project.

“We love the birds around the nursery,” Epler said. “We have blue heron and hawks that have flourished in the nursery.”

There are many options for projects, from the type of streamside restoration at EF Nursery to cover cropping between and in rows of in-ground trees. In Epler’s case, the conservation practices selected were a perfect match for his operation’s needs as well as the opportunities to protect and enhance habitat for both fish and birds.

“We originally decided to do a buffer because of the funds available. There were benefits that we did not think about too, though — keeping the streams cool and making them look more appealing, not only to other people but to other animals also,” Epler said.

Epler reports that through the years, as these invasive plants have been removed and replaced with native grasses, the number of birds around the nursery has already increased. Control of weeds near the streams has become easier too, helping to keep them out of the nursery.

Nearly all of these projects, however, start with controlling invasive species like blackberry and reed canary grass. When landowners like Epler understand the multiple benefits of their conservation projects, which often enhance wildlife habitat as well as cooling streams and filtering nutrient runoff, they embrace the idea of scheduling weed treatments around the critical bird nesting season. Protecting these young birds goes hand in hand with conserving and protecting natural resources, including wildlife.

The Portland Audubon Society is also concerned about the survival of young birds during the nesting season. According to Nikkie West, Backyard Habitat Program Coordinator at the society, more than 100 species of birds build nests, lay eggs and raise young in our region.

“The majority of these species, about 60 percent, actually nest in the shrub layer, rather than in trees,” West said. “Warblers, sparrows, towhees, and goldfinches all nest in lower vegetation, so activities like weed removal, brush clearing and pruning of smaller trees and shrubs can be particularly hazardous to them during this crucial part of their life cycle.”

West said birds are especially vulnerable during this time of year because after the eggs hatch, young birds go through the fledgling phase where they spend up to two weeks on the ground flightless and unable to fend for themselves. This endangers adult birds as well, which are nearby and tending to them.

Projects that restore native woody shrubs and trees to streamside areas on working and public lands provide important food and shelter for area wildlife, but could come with a cost if work is not done properly.

The Eplers have wrapped up preparation of their site for the next phase of the project, one that will benefit the birds even further: restoring the native plant community near the stream this winter. This conservation work has been deeply gratifying for the Eplers, who view their nursery as part of the overall landscape of Washington County.

“I have worried about chemical use and the environment,” Epler said. “It is a relief to see animals running and playing out in the trees and along the stream banks. We can coexist.”

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